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FOLLOWING THE FLAME
Howard Smith and Graham Sweet
Winter Olympics Interview

Howard - I’ve been asked on many occasions to write a book and I’ve always said, “No, I’m not going to write a book”, and they’ve always said, “Why?” And I’ve always said, “Because I actually want my children to speak to me for the rest of my life!”. (Laughs)

Graham - Thinking of some of the things that went on in Hohne, I could never ever put that in a book.

Howard - Outrageous.

Graham - Impossible.

Howard - A film possibly, but it would probably be blue. But we’ve been very fortunate, haven’t we, mate, over the years. If you look back at the point where we joined the army and what they do now, I mean, I still work for the Army and we were so fortunate.

Graham - I think that the best part about it was that we were in an era when the Army was fun. I’m not saying it’s not fun now, but in those days it was fun. We were always getting up to some mischief about something or other.

Howard - We had time on our hands. My career spans over 30 years and I can split it down into two easily identifiable chunks, pre 1990 / post 1990, Mr Gorbachev bringing down that wall! Well, if I had my way I’d be saying, “Mr Gorbachev stick it back up!” because, prior to 1990, being in the Army was great. We had the occasional Northern Ireland tour, we had the occasional nausea here, there and everywhere, but it was fun, wasn’t it?

Graham - It wasn’t just fun, like you’ve already said. B Squadron was the rugby squadron. A Squadron was the squadron that the rest of the regiment hated because we went to Berlin, they didn’t. When we came back from Berlin everybody was, “We’re going to get A Squad”, and the rivalry within the regiment sort of just lifted. We were in our squadron bar and something was going on in B squadron bar that we didn’t like, we’d go across to B Squadron bar and trash it. They used to come and say, “You can’t do that”. Remember that Dutch Leopard?

Howard - The Dutch had a camp next to us and they had Leopard tanks. We had the old Chieftains and they were having their visit from Queen Margarita, I think, Beatrix’s mum, and they’d put this beautiful shiny Leopard tank on the tank bridge across the road. The night before her arrival, some of the boys from A Squadron went over and painted it silver with ban the bomb signs and Free Wales all over it!

Graham - The best part about was they didn’t just do it, they then put handprints and footprints into another Squadron to blame another Squadron. All the boys were in bed and C Squadron were getting ripped to bits but, of course, our Sergeant Major then was Dakin and he said, “Nah, that’s my boys”, and he had us all up and our hands were like that and nobody had any silver paint over them and he said, “Okay, I know you done it but how did you not get paint on you?” And one of the idiots said, “We wore gloves, Sir!” (Laughs) “Okay, go down the cooler for a while!”

Howard - But they were great days and we used to class ourselves as professional soldiers and spent a lot of time on exercise preparing for the Army and for the invasion but the rest of it, there was so much time on our hands. We played rugby on a Wednesday, we played rugby on a Saturday. We were in Germany to start off and, bear in mind, there was no television … well, there was television but it was German television! We didn’t have videos, we didn’t have mobile phones, we didn’t have anything. All we had was ourselves and our sport and the squadron bars. The squadron bars were the hub of everything and from the squadron bars everything came. I remember in B Squadron we used to have these porn nights. Every Tuesday, the entire squadron would go into the bar and there would be a row of seats like in a cinema and one of the lads was the squadron pervert and he used to go up to Hamburg - a guy called Ricky Elsmore. I hope I’m not going to get sued now - and Elsmore would go out and buy these eight millimetre blue films, and he’d come down and put them on the projector and show them on a screen and you’d have 90 blokes all lined up like this watching porn films, no sound. And all I can remember was watching pornography on the screen and after about 10 minutes blokes getting up and disappearing out the door! (Laughs) It was such fun! But it was sport, it was all about sport. If you weren’t a sportsman, you didn’t have a career.

Howard - Graham was an established member of the first XV when I joined the league.

Graham - I started off as a flanker, slowly got a bit slower, so they put me to number eight and, I think, by the time you joined I was just leaving number eight to go to second row.

Howard – Yeah, with your brother, you and Billy were playing in the second row.

Graham - He was a bit of a tart because even though he was a monster guy, my brother, one game we were playing and I said, “You’ve got to play second row today, you’ve just got to”. He said, “I’m not playing in there. It’s stupid there”.

Howard - He used to want to play centre, didn’t he, all the time? A six foot six centre ...

Graham - He had to play centre. The only way he could ever catch the ball ... throw a ball at his chest, it’ll bounce off it … throw a ball at his stomach he’ll never catch it. Our competitiveness came in because of the rugby. We had a thing called the Luck Cup where every squadron put a rugby team out, put a football team out, even cricket, hockey, you name it, swimming teams. This Luck Cup was something that if you won it, you were considered to be THE squadron and, as it happened, no matter how good A Squadron were - we did have a good rugby team - but we could never ever beat B Squadron. The rivalry there was terrible between us especially on rugby days, wasn’t it?

You’ve seen it on some of the games, haven’t you, where you see these boys, they shake hands after the match, there was no shaking hands after the match. If they wanted to carry on fighting they’d carry on fighting!

Howard - The inter-squadron rivalry was very keen and, of course, the Luck Cup was over 10 different sports: rugby, football, hockey, athletics, swimming and whichever squadron got first, second, third would win a certain number of points and whoever at the end of the 10 disciplines had the most winning points won the Luck Cup. It was always a great party because sport was such a significant issue in our regiment at that time.

I knew Graham through rugby. He was in a different squadron to me but we were great mates because we played in the back row together, and then he moved into the second row and I moved into number eight because a slightly better flanker than me had arrived, and we had a cracking rugby team.

Graham - We had five squadrons at one stage because we had the D Squadron, didn’t we, and every squadron could put out a rugby team, a football team, a hockey team, a swimming team …

Howard - … capable of beating other regiments …

Graham - In a lot of instances. So, our sporting life, well our Army life was all sport. There was a lot of professionalism as far as you had to do your trade training, your annual firing camps and this, that and the other, but that was pushed to the background because sport was the thing.

Howard - Rugby training took precedence over working on the tanks. If you were on the rugby team, your troop sergeant was told, “Smith is going rugby training. If you want him to work later on in the evening that’s up to you, but he’s going rugby training.”

Howard - The military ethos at the time demanded people to be competitive and one of the ways to make people competitive was to make them sporty, along with adventurous training, because that was another component, you know, climbing mountains, rowing down lakes in canoes and all this sort of business, going off into the jungles, climbing up the highest mountains in the Himalayas - we had a team from our regiment who went up Everest - these were the things that were seen to give blokes a self confidence, a belief in their own ability to get things done. It’s no coincidence okay that the best sportsmen in our regiments tended also to be the best soldiers.

Despite what you see, today, it ain’t done on computer. There’s boys out in Afghanistan strangling people in ditches, let me tell you.

Graham - For those boys who are going to Afghanistan now to be as fit as they are, a lot of that is back to the fact that they play sport. So, it’s still there behind them. They still go out on foot patrols, they still do things an infantry soldier is expected to do, so they have to be as fit as infantry men are fit, so those boys, the only way they’re going to get fit is if they’re in the gym 20 hours a day before they go, and play sport twice or three times a week.

Howard - There’s a lot of battlefield wizardry around these days and you’re right about the drones and all the rest of it. However, I still work for the military, down in St Athan for the guys in the Parachute Regiment who are out there all the time, and they are fighting a war that our grandfathers would recognise, still.

A friend of mine was walking in the green zone on patrol and the grass is eight feet high there and you can’t see five feet in front of you and he walked in front. He was lead man of his patrol and he walked straight into the back of a Taliban fighter who was the rear man of his patrol and the only reason he knew he was Taliban was because he could see the RPG sign across his shoulders. So, he looked up like that, saw him, shot him in the back. All hell broke loose because they then turned around and started firing at them, within 15 feet of each other, 20 blokes shooting like hell. There was a couple of guys killed, a couple of guys hurt, and they managed to get the better of them. To think that technology is overtaking the ability of a soldier to close with the enemy and up personal do what is expected of him is still there and they are still doing it to this very day.

You cannot have a soldier who is not fit, both in body and mind. He has to be mentally agile, he’s got to think on his feet and he’s got to be able to shift his carcass around at a rate of knots, and the best way of doing that is sport and that’s what we do. If we’re not doing something that’s not involved in direct soldiering, we are training them and we are keeping them fit, and one of the ways other than pounding up the hills on the sand dunes is allowing them to express themselves in sport. Sadly, of course, from our perspective when we were soldiers, we had much more time to do those wonderful things. These boys don’t have the same amount of opportunity that we had.

It’s a team ethos, of course. You’ve always got the team ethos. The Army is great with its team sports. Of course, there are individual sports, mountain climbing and all that sort of business, but essentially team sports is where the emphasis lies. They like their football, they like their rugby, they like their cricket, hockey. Any team sport is big because then you are working together to the common cause.

Graham – So, when you think about it, that’s it’s exactly like what you’re doing when you’re out in Afghanistan. You’re out there as a regiment but if you come down smaller and smaller, then you’re out there as a team, and a team is a troop which is twelve men which is virtually a team.

You look after those 12 men, you eat with them, you drink with them, you sleep with them, you go to the toilet with them, you do what you like with them, but in the end, when you go out on patrol, every one of you looks after each other. That’s your team. Two or three squadrons become a regiment. The regiment becomes a team. It builds up. I know it’s funny to say it but all the way through the army, the building block starts, an individual, a troop or a platoon, then you’ve got a squadron, then you’ve got a regiment, then brigades or whatever. It’s all building up and every part of it, if it doesn’t gel together and lock together, it only needs one component to be out and the whole thing falls apart.

Howard - And that’s why we push this team ethos in the military, particularly in the Army. The Army is more into this than both the Navy and the Air Force. They play around on the margins but the Army is where this whole factor is maximised upon.

There’s completely different cultures, I can tell you, all three services have got an easily definable difference in culture. The Army is very tribal, it’s very close, it defends itself against all. The RAF is completely different. They’ve got a corporate attitude to things, they’re very health and safety conscious. I call them teeth suckers. You ask them something and it’s (draws in breath through teeth), “I don’t know about that. Can’t do anything about that”. The only people in the RAF who’ve got a similar ethos on life that we have are the air crew, because they’re doing the job, but I’m probably going to be shot by every RAF guy I know for saying this but your average RAF guy who’s been in the RAF for say, 10 years, if he joined the Army he’d find it very, very difficult.

Howard - I think you find you get a lot more dullards in the Army than you do in the RAF anyway.

Graham - When you go to the recruiting office to start with, I think class is maybe the wrong word to use.

Howard - Horses for courses, it is.

Graham - Because when you go to a recruiting office they look at you and say, “Okay, your intelligence level is such and such, so you’re definitely for the Army or of your intelligence level is a bit more, oh, you’re for the RAF or Navy you are”, especially if it’s a joint recruiting office and they’re fighting each other there to get the best guy. They don’t look where he’s from - he’s from the upper middle class or anything like that. A lot of it is what your intelligence level is.

Howard - it’s a generalisation but the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force are much more technically based on, you know. You’re sailing a ship around and you’ve got some state of the art technology in it, and an aircraft, of course, and the supporting staff for the aircraft, whereas, by and large - I mean the Army is extremely technical in certain facets - but by and large, you know, what do you want your soldier to do? You want your soldier to close with the enemy, destroy him and hold that ground against any possible counter-attack, end of. And you need a certain type of dogged individual to do that. You don’t need someone clever with a screw driver or good with a computer.

The team ethos and the physicality of sport, you can’t have shrinking violets in an infantry platoon, you want boys that will kick the door down, sort you out and then ask a few questions after. That’s what you need.

Graham - It’s the same sort of thing in a two man or a four man bob. When Jackie tipped us upside down and we knew we were going to go, “We’re definitely going over here” - but every single one of us, if you saw the photographs of us then, Jackie was head down because he knew he was going over, but we didn’t know it was this corner or the corner coming up we were going to go upside down, and we were all out of the sled trying to put weight on the top runner so it wouldn’t fall over. It’s impossible to do it but you were trying your hardest trying to get a bit more weight up there so the centrifugal force wouldn’t take you over. So, the three of us come up as one. It’s no good one of you going up or two of you, three of you had to do it, so the same sort of team spirit came in.

Some of the corners Jackie had us do it, he said, “Right, on this corner, all I want you to do is move your bums”, so you’re going down and the three of you do that and that would be enough to get you around the corner and you’d only do it on certain corners because if you did it when he didn’t tell you, then you got hell at the bottom of the track.

Howard - You get up in the morning and you didn’t just go to a bob sleigh track and sit in a bob sleigh and go down. The bob sleigh needed preparing, the runners needed polishing and the engineering on the bob sleigh needed looking at and checking. The driver would be left pretty much to his own devices to go off and think his way down the track and figure out which particular line he was going to take. The three crewmen would be transporting the bob up the track, preparing it for racing and warming up together, because when you start, you have to start as a unit, so the four guys together, they’ve got to be on the block and it’s moving the sled back and fore on the ice, one, two, three, and when you hit the sled, you hit it together and it has to be together and the way you get in has to be synchronized. So, there’s this huge team effort here in not just competing but actually preparing, looking after, maintaining and servicing of the whole thing.

Graham - Back in my first run I said, “Oh, I’m never going to do this again”, but after that …. you must have had more crashes than I did. I had two or three horrendous crashes I can remember. I don’t think I ever got to the bottom of the track and said, “That’s it, that’s enough now. I’m going home”.

Howard – No, that never happened …

Graham - … because I knew that ...

Howard - … it was an occupational hazard.

Graham - You accepted the fact. “Alright, we were upside down. Why did we get upside down?” “Okay, we went upside down on this corner. Why did we go upside down?” “Jackie, what did you do wrong?” “Well, I slightly oversteered coming out of the corner before that”, and Sweeto on the back would go, “No, you didn’t. Graham, you moved your bum”. I’d go, “I didn’t”. “Yes, you did!” So, you had this thing amongst you. You talked to each other when you got to the bottom of the track. Nobody ever came to the bottom and said, “That was stupid. I’m never going down there again with you!”

Howard - You could, sort of, liken it to a game of rugby really. I mean, you go into a ruck, you’re going to get beat up, right, you know you’re going to get beat up, but you’ve got to be extraordinarily unlucky to get beat up real bad. And it was the same in bob sleighing. If you crashed, you knew you were going to get duffed but you’d come out of it with bruises and aches and pains. But, to get yourself seriously hurt or killed, you had to have extraordinary bad luck, and in a season where a lot of guys would be bob sleighing, all the way through the season, the whole time I was bob sleighing, I only knew of three fatalities, I think.

It’s just something you took in your stride. I didn’t at any time, no matter what was going on, want to stop bob sleighing. There was one competition in Cortina where Morgan died, and I didn’t like that very much, but I wasn’t on my own I can tell you. That Cortina was a killer of a track, literally, and I don’t think I’ve heard so much breaking of wind and people looking very, very worried in the changing room as I did in 1981. At the end of that competition, they chopped five corners off the bottom of that track to make it safer because it was a very, very nasty experience … but that was the only time. And the only reason I gave up bob sleighing - I would have carried on - was that I got married and I was like Graham told by the commanding officer, if I wanted a career now, I had to concentrate. I’d been to the Olympics, I’d got married, I wanted to start a family. I was a corporal trying to be a sergeant, so I thought, “Okay, enough’s enough”. That’s what stopped me. Nothing to do with crashing or getting scared or anything.

Graham – Well, we had an incident with Ginge Rash, a good friend of ours. We were in A Squadron bar late one Saturday night, early one Sunday morning. He wanted a barbecue so he said, “Right, I’ll get the barbecue started”. We thought, “Where’s he going to get the wood?” Nobody had an idea. He went out and he chopped the squadron flag pole down, chopped it down into bits, nice fire going on, the barbecue was going quite well and we thought, “Hang on, we’ve got to have our flag there by Monday morning otherwise our Sergeant Major is going to go stupid. We’ll steal C Squadron’s”. So, we went across and stole C Squadron’s. C Squadron said, “You can’t have that”. They stole B Squadron’s, B Squadron stole somebody else's. Of course, the last squadron, always the last squadron on the line, poor old HQ’s Squadron, where are they going to get a flag pole from by Monday morning? So they stole the one from the Dutch Camp. The Sergeant Major came past late Sunday afternoon, saw this fire burning quite merrily, looked up, saw no flag, didn’t say a word but if there was no flag pole by Monday morning, you could look out! We all had flag poles by Monday morning - no matter where you got one from, you had to have one - apart from the Dutch!

Howard - Yeah, it was mayhem. One of my favourite stories is when I was a sergeant. I’d finished bob sleighing and we camped up in this wood for a weekend. In Germany, you had to stop trundling around at midday on a Saturday through until midnight on a Sunday so that the Germans could go for the walks in the woods without being threatened with being run over with a tank. I remember the squadron leader, the major had said to me, “We’ve got the padre coming out on Sunday at 11 o’clock and we’re going to have a field service in this beautiful German wood, all the tanks parked up, and we are going to have the squadron there singing All Things Bright And Beautiful and everything was going to be great, right, fab!” This was Friday night now and I remember we were parked in this big German wood but just off in the distance in the valley were some twinkling lights of a little village and all Germans have got a village pub, so some of the boys had come up and said, “Can we go down the pub, Sarge?” I said, “Right, yes you can. However, you’re here tomorrow morning, you’re back tonight because we’ve got the padre coming”. The squadron leader had gone off and we were pretty much in charge of ourselves, so off they went down the German pub. I had a few drinks with the guys around a bonfire and off I went to bed. The next morning, I’m up having a shave and the back to one of the reconnaissance vehicles was shut tight and I said, “Where’s that crew. Are they not up yet? We’ve got the padre coming”. They said, “They’re getting up in a minute, Sarge”, and there was this frantic moving around of individuals and I thought, “What’s going on here?”. And all of a sudden, the back of this Spartan opened up and two girls came out and were toddling off through the wood back towards the village, you see. Great laugh. “Oh, where did they come from?”, bit of a laugh and a joke, great. So I’m shaving and I can see the guys now starting to get themselves sorted out, apart from one guy, a guy called Pete Jones who was actually on my tank, my driver, and I said, “Pete, get your clothes on, get your uniform on, the padre is coming out and he’ll be here in 45 minutes. Stop messing around and get yourself bloody sorted”. “I’m getting myself sorted out”, and then I could see him wandering around in his underpants and boots trying to speak to people surreptitiously and I thought, “What is going on here?” So, I walked over and I said, “Why haven’t you got your uniform on?” And he looked at me and he said, “Because I haven’t got it anymore, Sarge”. I said, “Why, where is it?” He said, “I lost it at cards to a German in the pub last night!” (Laughs) So, I had to give him my spare uniform, rip my sergeant stripes off it and give it to him so he could make the church parade on time. I never get it back? He is now the building manager for the Eureka Tower in Melbourne, so bad boy done good!

Madness. We used to have squadron bonfire nights out in woods you know, in the old days, and I’m talking about when he and I first joined in the 1970s. The Second World War had only finished 30 years before, it was fresh in everybody’s minds and a lot of the Germans remembered what the Russians had been like when they arrived on their doorstep and they were very tolerant of us damaging things because they knew that we had to exercise to defend them. Back in the 1970s, you could get away with literally just about murder frankly, damage wise, and I remember being a youngster in a turret of a tank. A whole squadron of main battle tanks came out of this wood and come straight across the gardens of a street full of German houses, 12 tanks driving straight up everybody’s garden to the other side. It was four o’clock in the morning and it was just getting light and all these little German families all stood by the back doors of their back gardens watching all these tanks going, “Vroom, Vroom”. I remember thinking, “Good god, this would never happen in Britain”, and behind us were the military police giving out chits, “Claim the money back!”, and they’d get people in to fix it all for them and the Germans would pay because that was the way it worked. We were in Germany defending them, so they paid for the damage we caused.

You’d be parked up on the side of the road and say, for instance, your tank had broken down, it didn’t take very long before you got a German lady and perhaps some of them coming up with a tray of coffee and cakes and wanting to try and speak their broken English. They were great, actually, if you think about it, because we got up to all sorts of ridiculous things. I remember going down an ornamental path and the tracks of the tank were pulling up all the bricks behind them, they were just flying up behind the back of the tank, up and down the road, 65 tons of tank going down the road, destroying everything. They didn’t care as long as somebody gave them the chit.

Graham - A lot of the times, the farmers especially would turn around and say, “Look, you’ve missed my shed”, so you’d go back and get it.

Howard - Or, “Will you come back and drive over this old piece of machinery”, so, of course, we would.

Graham - So they could get a new tractor or a new barn out of you, that’s what they used to do or they’d follow you for miles and say, “Are you going across this field”, “Are you going across that field”, so they knew once you were there, they’d get their money back.

Howard - There were blokes who used to herd their old and infirm sheep on to firing ranges and we’d just be machine-gunning all these sheep and then, they’d claim for brand new sheep, you know! That’s the sort of dull things we did!

Graham - I’m 64 now, 63 going on 64, and I think if I had my time over again, if I was an 18 year old boy in the valleys, I’d join the Army.

Howard - On one condition, that I could turn the clock back to 1974.

Graham - I wouldn’t now. You’d have to think about it.

Howard - If I could turn the clock back to 1974, I’d do it all again and I wouldn’t change a thing. If it would be today, I’d be thinking very seriously if I wanted to join the Army but you know what? There is no recruiting crisis in this country. There’s boys queuing up to join because they see what goes on on the telly in Afghanistan and they want a part of it.

There’s a social pressure here. A lot of these boys, don’t forget, are out of work. They’re looking for adventure, they are looking for a purpose, they’re looking for a cause. It’s never changed, that’s where soldiers come from, they come from the working classes because they are looking for something better. So, if they’re up there in Abercwmbucket okay, and that’s all they’re doing is watching their mates doing blow and all the other anti-social activities that are going on there, and they haven’t got a job, they’re watching on television a team of guys working together, getting something positive done, they want a bit of it. There’s no shortage of recruits in the recruiting offices. We’re turning them away.

It’s got so bad that we’ve got a selection process now to select those we think will pass the selection for the Army. They’re selecting for the selection, we’ve got so many people coming in.



Howard - They don’t know in Wales that they’ve got a four times Olympian and a five times Olympic coach.

Graham - Gomer is unrecognised inside Britain; outside Britain he is recognised!

Howard - Everybody on the winter sports circuit knows him. He’s a close personal friend of Prince Albert of Monaco. I think he went to his wedding.


(interview conducted by Phil Cope on 21 November 2011)

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